Despite some instances of superfluous self-revelation – do we really need to hear about Kaag’s failed marriages? – this short book is an excellent introduction to William James and his philosophy. It is timely, too, given the state of the world as it plunges towards hell in a handcart. Help, even if not of the life-saving kind, is available. As John Kaag beautifully has it, ‘Pragmatism is about life and its amelioration. That’s it.’
Sick Souls,Healthy Minds belongs to the American confessional genre, which runs all the way from Puritanism to Norman Mailer. As befits the Me generation, it is as much about the author as his subject. James is sometimes no more than a convenient peg on which Kaag can hang his dishevelled thoughts about getting divorced, his predictably beautiful daughter, getting divorced again and so on. We learn that he has a beer at five o’clock every day, that as a kid he was uncoordinated and stuttered badly, and that his daughter swallowed some amniotic fluid on the way out of the womb but quickly recovered. He even threatens us with a future book on bringing up a child as divorced parents. It isn’t obvious quite what any of this has to do with, say, the pragmatist claim that truth can only be established retrospectively, or indeed with the life of James, but like many an autobiographer Kaag seems to assume that others will be as interested in the small change of his own existence as he is himself.